The advertisements above do not necessarily reflect the views of this blog, its authors, or host.

Thanks for the Memories

On this week’s show we had an impromptu discussion at the end about the fallibility of memory. This is an important topic for skeptics, for there are many anecdotal accounts presented as evidence for UFO’s and the entire spectrum of woo and the paranormal. Knowing in detail the flaws and limitations of human memory is therefore critical to analyzing these claims. It is also useful in legal matters and in everyday life.

It is disconcerting how flawed our memories are. The idea that the past I remember is not my past but a constantly changing story I subconsciously make up about my past just doesn’t seem right – but the evidence is overwhelming that it is. Jay recounted a memory of watching a specific episode of Star Trek TNG with Bob and Bob recounting the quote to him from Arthur Clarke, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This memory is clear to Jay and his certainty in its accuracy is very high. It is verifiably true that the episode is real and he really watched it. The quote from Clarke is also verifiably true. But all the other details are not verifiable and therefore we cannot know how accurate Jay’s memory is. Perhaps he heard the quote from someone else, or from Bob at a different time and then just merged the memories.

I have written about memory often over at NeuroLogica. Here is a recent entry about false memories in the courtroom. Here is an earlier overview on human memory.

The skeptical literature is also full of articles on memory. Here is one by Richard Wiseman and others from the Skeptical Inquirer, specifically focusing on memory and eyewitness testimony of allegedly paranormal events.

Note – I will keep this as a floating blog post. I want to dig up some more of the seminal studies in human memory and I will list them here as I get them.

5 comments to Thanks for the Memories

  • “I will keep this as a floating blog post. I want to dig up some more of the seminal studies in human memory and I will list them here as I get them.”

    That doesn’t help those of us who read the RSS feed. The feed will probably update when you update the post, but unless I remember to go back and check it, I won’t see it. Simply posting a “part 2″ would be more helpful.

    Memory is really interesting to me. I had a big argument with my friend about the accuracy of a story (that happened 25 years ago) someone told. “But he was THERE!” really doesn’t mean much. It’s easily testable, too. If you’ve ever written a diary entry, blog post, or even just an email (from at least a few months ago, try a year) telling someone a story, it’s fun to try and remember what happened — write down all the little details you can remember. Then go find that email/post you wrote, and see how much of it matches up. It may surprise you how much the story has changed in your own mind.

  • Baji Kimran

    Wondering if a certain politician’s recent recollection of ducking gunfire being refuted by actual video falls into this category.

    One commentator said something to the effect of, “you don’t misremember getting shot at,” but it was very clear that he had done no research on false memory at all and was winging it.

    It seems to me that even a traumatic false memory is certainly possible. What I find interesting is said politician’s cavalier “Eh, whatever, I’m human” reaction to it.

    I think if you whipped out a video of Jay & Bob watching that episode and Bob never made the comment

  • Baji Kimran

    I think if you whipped out a video of Jay & Bob watching that episode and Bob never made the comment, that Jay would have a significant emotion reaction to it.

    Is our test subject politician’s reaction then one of resolving cognitive dissonance or is the entire episode purely tactical?

  • weing

    I suspect Hillary imagined gunfire when she was told they were landing in a war zone. She then recollected the imagination she had. Anyway, thanks for the mammaries.

  • [...] week I wrote about the fallibility of human memory as a follow up to a discussion of the topic on the SGU. In the week since this very question has [...]

Leave a Reply